Settling negligence cases in kind hailed
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In terms of the High Court ruling in Johannesburg, future medical needs for victims of poor treatment can be covered by payment in kind.
Although this ruling only applies to future cases in Gauteng, the new system of compensation for damages suffered at state facilities could spread to other provinces. KZN health department spokesperson Agiza Hlongwane said the increase in medico-legal claims was a global phenomenon that remained a serious concern for the department, as it put severe pressure on its already inadequate budget.
During the 2018/19 financial year, a total of 450 new medico-legal claims were received, which increased the total number of such cases to above 2600.
“This is money that ought to be rather spent on treating patients and improving health outcomes in the province,” he said.
Hlongwane said the department had “drawn strength” from the recent case law, which empowered it not to settle cases where continued care for an affected patient could be proven.
In addition, he said one of the contributing factors to the increased medico-legal claims was the “unethical practice of touting” by certain unscrupulous law firms.
He said one of the law firms that the department was investigating was based in Johannesburg, “and has, on its own, lodged a whopping 96 claims against the department in just two months, which is highly suspicious”.
“As part of these efforts to reduce our medico-legal bill, we are currently establishing a directorate, which will be responsible for investigating every potential claim and each and every medico-legal claim that is lodged against the department,” he said.
This unit would be made up of professionals with a medical and legal background.
They would advise the department on the correct path to follow and the quantum of damages to be awarded where necessary.
The department was also in the process of establishing a panel of lawyers who would assist and represent the state in court.
Over and above that, Hlongwane said the department was seeking government support for the full staffing of specialised rehabilitative health-care centres to assist children who were born with cerebral palsy and other ailments.
“For now, these facilities will be located at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital, the Durban Children’s Hospital, Northdale Assessment and Rehabilitation Centre, and at Phoenix Assessment and Rehabilitation Centre.
“These centres will offer occupational therapists, physiotherapists, audio therapists, speech therapists and dentists. This will assist in reducing the costs awarded against the department in relation to future medical expenses of claimants,” Hlongwane said.
Durban attorney Michael Friedman, who specialises in medical negligence claims, said he thought it was wrong that victims had to probably go back for treatment to the same institution that caused the damage in the first place.
Friedman said, in addition, nothing appeared to have been done over the last several years to improve treatment so that these claims did not arise.
In response to the allegation that the increased rate of medico-legal claims was a result of the unethical practice of touting by certain law firms, Friedman said: “The Legal Practice Council in KZN has said time and time again, bring complaints and they will be dealt with.
“As far as I know, no complaints against KZN attorneys have been lodged for unprofessional practice.”